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Sustainability: The Way Forward

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Sustainability in retail has become a powerful value proposition to increasingly conscious consumers. Sustainability is not a new facet anymore and was pretty much in the picture before the pandemic as well. But since the pandemic, the trend has picked up the interest of the entire retail fraternity as customer behaviour has drastically shifted to environmental- practices and healthy measures. The retail world has understood that there is a desperate need to make this planet a more liveable space.

Across the world, the retailers are looking to contribute to this change and reduce their impact on the environment by following eco-friendly business practices. The report by Shopify, suggests that 50% of customers globally are looking to buy from brands that have a clear commitment towards sustainability.

The data simply shows that now the brands don’t have the luxury to ignore sustainable practices. The report, ‘State of Fashion 2021’ by McKinsey states that armed with customer insights, companies can reset their long-term strategies. Furthermore, they can redirect investment into opportunities that will outlast the pandemic. They continue to say, the most fertile ground for redirecting investment into opportunities will be in the areas of digitalization and sustainability.

Building a sustainable brand looks simple, but requires a lot of change in the strategies/ policies from the brand’s side.

Sustainability: The Approach 

The technology is playing a pivotal role in bringing the sustainability approach. With the help of advanced technology, plastic bottles can now be converted into fabrics. The fashion industry has also embraced this concept and now many brands are foraying into this category.

Kapil Bhatia, CEO and Founder, UNIREC explains, “We are a brand that makes garments/ workwear and fabrics made from PET recycled clothes. When we thought of sampling the brand, the first few challenges were to deal with the packing and delivering of the products. Even the team was unsure of handling these challenges. We realized at that time sustainability is a culture not a habit. If we’re building a brand where we make garments from recycled pet bottles, it doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility of behaving in a manner where our brand ensures that we will have minimum waste of anything that we use/consume in our day to day lives.”

Sustainability is one of the top priorities in the beauty business as well. A lot has been witnessed in the beauty industry during the pandemic as now the new-age brands disrupted the category by offering products that have sustainable packaging and sourced from eco-friendly materials.

The consumers are the one who are driving this change as they are focussing on environmental approach and purchasing products that are sustainable in nature.

Pooja Parkar, Founder, Root Natural  is a skincare marketplace that provides a platform to the natural Indian skincare brands highlights the different approach that’s required while building a sustainable brand, “While brand building exercises might feel synonymous with creating any other brand. But building a sustainable brand requires a different approach than any other regular business.”

“The sustainable brand also requires educating its consumers about their offerings. It just goes beyond just marketing the brand’s vision and its mission which is required to make the consumers understand about the purpose of the brand and help them to switch to a better sustainable lifestyle for a better future. The quality of the products from its initial stage of procurement and production becomes paramount for any sustainable brand. On our platform before onboarding any brand, we ensure that the products are holistically sustainable right from the initial stage of procuring the ingredients, and also the brands coming onboard are certified by sustainable organizations,” she added.

Building a fashion sustainable brand is a tough task, with fast fashion coming in the trend. The new styles, designs, patterns  make it tough for the brands to grow in a sustainable way and offering the emerging trends side by side. The fashion market is huge and every brand wants to offer clothes in quirky designs at an affordable price as well so that more and more customers drive the purchase from their brand which sometimes make their take weak on sustainability.

Behroze Singh, Founder, COTTONS Jaipur added on this and stated, “Our sector is one of the most polluting and resource-intensive sectors in the world. It’s imperative that the clothing brands are now conscious of all the resources that help in creating clothing, manufacturing, transportation and packaging.”

“Building a sustainable brand needs a different approach in which we should avoid unsustainable materials, reduce high-emission production processes and minimize water consumption and pollution. Fashion brands have a lot of work to do when it comes to adopting a conscious approach”, she added.

Marketing & Promotions 

Sustainable marketing works because it promotes the core values of the business and now the stakeholders actually value – environmental wellness, human health, resource security, fair trade, social equity, etc. On the other hand, sustainability is also seen as an opportunity to market the product to the younger audience, as they are the one who are informative enough and the ‘sustainability’ factor is also influencing their buying decision.

According to a report by YouGov, the consumers care about sustainability now more than ever and data showed that 74% of the customers would switch from one brand to another if the other brand is offering a product with a sustainability standards. This completely shows that now sustainability is not just a thought, but now has become a demand.

Manthan Dhameliya, Founder, Kreeva shared his point of view on this and said, “We can’t ignore the fact that many brands have adopted the word ‘sustainable’ just to add the trending factor to their collection. The aware attitude by the consumers has also pushed the opening of many brands that are genuinely sustainable in nature. It’s the customers’ demand that is driving the market, even if the brands try to use sustainability as a gimmick the customers will see right through it and will only shop from places that source and sell sustainability.”

“It came with no surprise that many brands are utilizing sustainability as a marketing technique to retain the new-age audience of Millennials and Gen-Z. However, we have noticed that the customers are not just opting for this behavior as a trend, but now they have access to the information about the effects on the environment on a daily basis. Millennials and GenZ-s are getting smart and are eventually becoming conscious with their choices, so the sustainability feature can act as a token for the ease of being recognizable by the new- age customers”, says Parkar.

Manoj Nair, CEO, Gaurik Lifestyle said, “Sustainability is the future that has become about creating awareness and being close to the environment for a better time ahead. It’s a reality and is used as a positive tool to market the brand.”

Singh highlighted that no brand can be 100% sustainable, and they should not use sustainability as a marketing trick. He added, “The term ‘sustainable fashion’ is used by many brands in a disingenuous manner. It is often a facade or manipulation of facts under the garb of sustainability that’s used in order to be seen as an environmentally conscious brand which in turn drives sales based on false brand consciousness.”

Government Initiatives

In India, the Government of India is working on Green Investment and Sustainability as a top priority. The government is heavily investing to promote renewable energy, electric mobility, forestry, fiscal instrument designs and green growth plans. Government schemes and policies like Swachh Bharat mission, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and among others contribute towards achieving sustainable development goals.

Bhatia highlighted this and added, “The current government is clear with their stand on sustainability since 2014. Initially, they started with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, SATAT( Sustainable Alternative Toward Affordable Transportation) and now we saw a policy on complete ban on single use plastic. There are various initiatives by the government to ensure maximum awareness about sustainability due to which the awareness increases and new businesses came into existence.”

“These initiatives are made to boost the zeal in the people of India so that they can do something for nature and the environment. Thus, we have witnessed many sustainable brands around us growing at a first pace”, he added.

Parkar mentioned,“ With increasing focus on the SDGs(Sustainable Development Goals) and implementing sustainable policies. The government has played a key role in increasing awareness around sustainable development.”

She added, “One of the policies that had a major impact in the business was the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules 2021 which is aimed to phase out single use plastic by 2022. We’re not keeping track with the policy, but major shifts have been noticed in the parts of Chandigarh and Kerala.”

“The setting up of integrated textile parks is one of the flagship schemes of the Ministry of Textiles. The scheme aims to assist small and medium entrepreneurs in the textile industry to cluster investments in the textile parks by providing financial support for world-class infrastructure in the parks”, Singh mentioned.

Plastic Neutrality- a Need for Now

The use of plastic is now embedded in the operations of the brand which in result is endangering sustenance for every species. After the pandemic, when online shopping came into the boom, the brands started packaging their products with substances made of plastic. Loads of cartons, tapes and bubble wraps are used by the e-commerce companies which affect the environment in the long-run.

The single-use plastic is non- biodegradable in nature which means that all plastic produced will be present in the environment in some form or the other. Due to which, the new innovative concept of ‘plastic neutrality’ came into the limelight. 

The brands are opting for a plastic neutral approach in which they measure their plastic footprint and the same amount of plastic waste is recycled through waste management measures. Plastic neutrality is all different from ‘plastic-free’. The brands are introducing different strategies/ approaches to be a plastic neutral brand.

Parkar mentioned, “We’re proud to share that our brand is a plastic-free organization and planning to become more sustainable at every step of our business. We have introduced jute packaging in the place of hard-paper boxes and are also planning to partner with NGOs that can help us convert plastic into sustainable goods/products.”

The ethos behind the whole new concept of ‘plastic neutrality’ came from the D2C ecosystem as the new-age brands are the ones who started to dive in this approach.

Dhameliya mentioned, “The most exciting aspect of D2C currently is that they are built around strong values. These brands are fully exposed to consumer feedback and are as transparent as possible about the sustainability goals going beyond the business aspect and focussed on environmentally friendly strategies.”

“Kreeva plans to become a plastic-neutral ethnic fashion brand as this strongly aligns with our sustainability and financial goals,” he mentioned.

Sustainability & ROI

Talking about the cost implications of building an environmentally friendly business, Bhatia mentioned, “Currently, we have hurdles in fabri procurement, production, packaging but these are the small obstacles for the larger good. Everyday, we are overcoming them and moving forward. If we try a new thing, there will be a cost implication surely, but we’re proud that we are eliminating the long-term impact of products that end up in landfills.”

“While it totally depends on the type of business, the churning of the sustainable products might be expensive in the beginning. But, if the business model is completely sustainable then there will be some effective cost reductions as well. Now, the gap between sustainable and low-cost procurement is narrowing quite efficiently. Sustainable efforts by the brands often simplify and streamline supply chain operations, providing economic support to the customers and suppliers alike through lower prices and improved service levels. 

As the brands that are sourcing ingredients through their own organic farms are making it extremely sustainable & cost efficient,” Parkar said.

“The shift from fast fashion to a sustainable lifestyle is gaining momentum among today’s young generation, owing to the availability of organic and natural fabric, access to the artisans, sourcing new avenues and technology. Therefore, it makes it feasible for the brands to churn out the good sustainable product through it. However,

it’s an expensive affair now as the demand now is not as high as the conventional alternatives. Doing business ethically and sustainably comes at a premium at every step of the manufacturing process. The Reusable packaging and items are costlier but it will save money in the long run”, Dhameliya mentioned.

This eventually made us believe that focussing on sustainability will give a big impact to the retailers in the long run, and eventually it will also educate customers that how the sustainable approach by them can make them create a positive impact on the environment.